You know you’re in trouble when the first five minutes of a movie are spent in narration, explaining to you what the movie will be about and, essentially, letting you know that he screenwriters really could not be bothered to find creative ways to introduce you to the basic concepts with, you know, pictures and dialog.
I had been looking forward to seeing how they would bring the concept of dæmons to the screen in way that viewers would understand it (the book, Northern Lights, starts with taking the conceptof dæmons for granted in literally the first few words, but gradually lets the reader understand what’s behind the concept), and disappointingly, the movie simply gives a dry explanation (or, even more upsetting really, what really is just one possible interpretation), which sucks all the air of wonder and mystery out out of the concept. It’s not the only thing spoiled by the opening narrative, and in hindsight one feels lucky that they didn’t just give the ending (what ending?) away as well, while they were at it.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. The next 110 or so minutes are spent jumping from scene to scene, in what seems to be a never-ending bullet list of mini-episodes and deus ex machinas. Yes, machinas. Plural. Here a never-before seen or mentioned character appears out of nowhere to tell the lead character where to go next. There, Ms Coulter disperses with an out-of-context piece of information that’s needed to directly cross here, later. The list goes on.
Having read the book, one could of course follow along and try to recognize the original story line, but i don’t even want to imagine what an incoherent gibberish of scenes this movie must seem like to someone unfamiliar with the story. You never get the chance to know or identify with any of the great characters (except possibly the lead, who’s portrayal by 13-year-old new-comer Dakota Blue Richards is possibly the only thing this movie has going for itself). There’s never any reasoning on what’s going on or why characters make the decision they do – they simply randomly walk from one scene into the next.
It almost seems as if Chris Weitz had taken the book, cut it’s 300-or-so pages into convenient 10-page chunks, handed them off to 30 separate screenwriters and then randomly concatenated the results again; the result feels a bit like Monty Pythons’s And Now For Something Completely Different, with lots of CGI and all the funny parts removed.
The whole shebang ends with – no ending at all: some twenty or thirty pages before the book (which, while being part of a trilogy, does have a proper ending) would end, we just fade to black and roll the credits. I guess there’s only so much you can shoot on a 180 million dollar budget.
In summary, The Golden Compass is 2 hours of your life you will never get back and wish you had wasted on something else. I suppose a first warning sign should have been how the name of the movie differed from the book when, no, there really is no compass in the story, anywhere (not in the book, and not in the movie.
I would recommend anyone to stick to reading the books (which are excellent, btw), and let’s cross our fingers that book 2 and three will be spared this fate.